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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EDITORIAL: A Lousy Day In Russia For Free Speech




There are more depressing sights than the two young Americans who stumbled truculently through their maiden news conference as the new - and apparently, utterly unqualified - owners of the Kommersant newspaper.


For example, as depressing sights go, Tuesday also brought us Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin explaining that the new created-in-a-day Press Ministry will not exactly be a Propaganda Ministry, but that its tasks will be, "pardon the old-fashioned word - ideological work."


Ah, yes. Not the Propaganda Ministry, but the Ministry for Ideological Work. That's different. Mr. Stepashin is so very liberal! It's a relief to know that he and the FSB will be working together to keep undesirable elements out of the next parliament.


Just yesterday the nation was reading Boris Yeltsin's interview with Izvestia. "The main task, of course, is the elections," Yeltsin was quoted as saying. They need to be carried out with "dignity," they should be "honest and open," they should bring to power new political leaders "chosen by the people."


For those of us who believe Yeltsin is a complicated man, one whose motivations and beliefs pull him in different directions, this was a moderately hopeful moment: Yeltsin was talking of a constitutional transfer of power, of the need to protect besieged democratic institutions.


Russia's successes in building democracy may be debatable, but there has been one quiet achievement of enormous significance: People expect to vote. They expect to choose their political leaders.


And here was Yeltsin in Izvestia, reaffirming that expectation. Perhaps he was ready to cross "the family" and follow his conscience into retirement; maybe he didn't know his aides were frantically building a Trojan Horse union with Belarus, as a way to keep Yeltsin and his courtiers in the Kremlin.


What a difference a day makes. Now, instead of pondering Yeltsin's noble rhetoric, we are parsing the Kremlin's ominous bureaucratic reorganization. Mikhail Lesin, the Kremlin insider and gray cardinal of RTR television, has been put at the head of a new ministry in charge of Russia's mass media. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin said: "This decree [creating it] affects all journalists engaged in writing and television."


How? We don't know yet.


Kommersant editor Raf Shakirov probably has the right idea. He is taking a wait-and-see approach: If wunderkind Kia Joorabchian, his new boss, decides to meddle in the news room, Shakirov and his team of journalists can always quit.


But if by then the new Minpravdy is meddling in every other news room in the nation, where will they go?